Aisha didn’t move to New York City to raise some other mother’s kids. She moved there with the intention of bringing her young son over from Senegal. In order to pay his way, however, Aisha must do as so many undocumented women have in the Big Apple: She must play mom to a stranger’s child, while a family member takes care of her own back home in Africa. In “Nanny,” debuting writer-director Nikyatu Jusu brings fresh eyes to this widely accepted dynamic, so rarely seen from the perspective of the immigrant worker herself.
Aisha is a strong and independent heroine, though it’s not easy to be assertive in a culture that expects subservience of outsiders. A confident first-time filmmaker who doesn’t shy away from the power of ambiguity and suggestion, Jusu draws on aspects of West African folklore, invoking such supernatural figures as Anansi the Spider, a tiny trickster who uses his cunning to outwit larger rivals, and Mami Wata, a seductive water spirit or mermaid with dark motives. Their presence turns Aisha’s pursuit of opportunity into a kind of nightmare, as these old-world myths clash with the one that lured her across the ocean — that chimera we call the American dream.
More psychological than scary, “Nanny” might still be described as a horror movie. It certainly sounds like one, as ominous noises creak and strain beneath otherwise innocuous scenes. The film benefits a great deal from the Dolby Institute Fellowship grant, which gives select Sundance indies (including “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Swiss Army Man” in previous years) a major post-production upgrade. Jusu’s uneasy-making sound design creates tension where the visuals alone might not, such that neither Aisha (Anna Diop, best known for her role as Starfire on “Titans”) nor audiences can quite trust their eyes.
We might ask ourselves: What is Aisha most afraid of? She’s terrified of never seeing her son, Lamine (Jahleel Kamara), again, of course. That much we sense in the frequent, fretful calls she makes back to Senegal, checking in with Aunty Mariatou (Olamide Candide-Johnson) to make sure her boy is all right. But she’s also nervous about losing herself in this new place, about what she’s becoming in an unfamiliar city where it so often feels as if Aisha is at the mercy of forces beyond her control — forces that might even be described as magic.
“Nanny” finds original ways to convey the pressures Aisha faces in adjusting to her new home. Because the character doesn’t speak much, her visions — like the sight of a spider crawling into her open mouth while she sleeps, or the run-in with a mermaid who tries to drag her under at the local swimming pool — serve as haunting projections of Aisha’s innermost fears. They startle the character but don’t have quite the same effect on viewers, who may marvel at Jusu’s capacity to conjure such vivid hallucinations, even as they struggle to interpret what they mean.
More intimidating in many ways is the white family for whom Aisha works: outwardly pleasant, yet strangely threatening. They hold the power — to employ, to pay, potentially even to deport. Working mother Amy (Michelle Monaghan) welcomes Aisha into her elegant Manhattan apartment, with its dapper Black doorman (Sinqua Walls) and curiously sterile design style, as if career woman Amy and her (absent) photojournalist husband (Morgan Spector) subscribe to the Victorian philosophy that children should be seen and not heard.
Amy does her best to appear warm and accepting of this foreigner who will be cooking and caring for young Rose (Rose Decker), a girl who, as described, sounds difficult and allergy-prone. Amy shows Aisha the room she’ll use for overnight stays. “Please, make this space yours,” she says before handing the new nanny a binder full of guidelines, and we can’t help anticipating how this caring yet controlling mother will react when Aisha inevitably misinterprets one of her decrees.
Jusu meticulously calibrates the interactions between her characters, revealing a nuanced understanding of race and class relations. No wonder Aisha imagines herself drowning on multiple occasions in the film: Her disillusionment with everything America represented for her is overwhelming. She’s entered a system designed to exploit her, where even her allies can turn out to be predators — especially those who identify as liberal (Jusu makes it a point to show that Amy and Adam have a diverse group of friends).
In framing the entire film from Aisha’s perspective, Jusu upends the formula of a familiar genre, one that traditionally plays on the anxiety any mother might understandably feel in entrusting a foreigner to care for their kids. What if Rose winds up preferring this substitute mom? What if the nanny goes rogue and endangers the child? Now imagine those same uncertainties through Aisha’s eyes. “Nanny” climaxes much as a movie like “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” might, with Aisha kneeling over Rose in the bathtub, a raised kitchen knife ready to stab the child — except that here, we’re seeing it from an entirely new point of view.
The twist that follows represents a kind of worst-case scenario for Aisha. For audiences, it may seem strangely unsurprising, even predictable, given the clues (too tidily resolved in the film’s pinned-on epilogue). But after 90 minutes of mounting dread and mirages, of begging to be paid what she’s owed from her supposedly woke employers, reality catches up with her, far worse than any monster.